Teaching Opinion

Remote Learning Makes Time Management Even Harder

Blaming students for poor use of time is like blaming them for poor reading
By Emily Rinkema & Stan Williams — February 26, 2021 5 min read
A person looks at a large hourglass with sand still running through it
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Time management is an important skill, one that most of us as teachers would say is essential to academic success in our classes. Yet we often assume it’s a skill unlike others—that students either come to us with it or that they should be able to learn it on their own. This assumption at best leads to frustration and misunderstanding and, at worst, to inaccurate and harmful grading and reporting practices.

There is no doubt that time-management skills affect learning. Students who can manage time understand the relationship between it and productivity. They know how to plan ahead and monitor their time. They know how to chunk their tasks, prioritize subtasks, and reassess their use of time when something new comes up. Students with effective time-management skills usually do pretty well.

The pandemic shined a light on the considerable challenge that acquiring time-management skills presents. Students who were successful time managers in person were often successful because of the scaffolding teachers and schools provided. When those supports—bells, peer modeling, teacher reminders, mandated routines, staff check-ins and the like—were removed, and the physical and emotional complexities of the pandemic—sickness, grief, fear, hunger, anxiety, loneliness, depression—were added, students who had been able to function successfully began to fall apart. And students who were struggling with time management before sometimes had extra difficulty.

It is our responsibility to teach time management just as we would teach an academic skill.

It’s so easy to lapse into blaming the students. We’ve all heard such sentiments. “In the real world, they would be fired if they didn’t turn their work in on time,” a principal says. “They have to be held accountable!” Or, about an assignment, from a teacher: “But it’s all right there! They just need to read the directions! Do I have to hold their hands?”

Pandemic teaching highlighted something we have known for a long time: Expecting students to be good at time management will not make them better at time management. Rewarding and punishing students for exhibiting or not exhibiting these skills is not likely to lead to improvement if they don’t have the skills in the first place.

Whether our students are in person or remote, it is our responsibility to teach time management just as we would teach an academic skill. As proficiency-based learning coordinators in our district, our job for the past decade has been to support teachers as they design instruction, student work, and assessments for academic skill-based learning targets. Now more than ever, we believe we need to take the same approach for executive-functioning skills, the mental skills that we use daily to manage life. While there are some significant differences in how we might assess and report these skills fairly, the instruction is remarkably similar to that for academic skills.

First, just as with academic targets, we need to clearly articulate outcomes. Assessment guru Rick Stiggins has said that learners can “hit any target that they can see and that stands still for them.” As proponents and practitioners of standards-based learning, we suggest developing learning targets and scales that clearly articulate what we mean when we say “time management.”

This may entail breaking the larger skill into smaller, distinct subskills. For example, developing a learning target for task management, a subskill of time management, would require us to precisely define what that skill looks like at a variety of levels. Here’s a draft of a potential scale, with our learning target in the shaded position. Note how the complexity of the skill increases from left to right, moving from basic task scheduling to more sophisticated management skills:

Task Management: How do I manage tasks in a way that helps me meet goals?

I can break a task into multiple parts.

I can break a task into distinct parts and schedule completion of each part in order to meet a deadline.

I can break tasks into distinct parts and estimate the time it will take for each, allowing me to prioritize completion of the parts in order to meet a deadline.

I can manage multiple tasks by breaking each down in a way that allows me to estimate time and prioritize completion in order to meet multiple deadlines.

Second, we need to develop strategies and practice opportunities for students and then provide time for them to practice those strategies in front of us, where we can observe and intervene. This may mean giving students hypothetical tasks and asking them to break them into parts; it may mean having students practice time estimation during class to see how realistic their estimates are; it may mean asking students to practice prioritizing parts by putting them in control of lesson planning!

Third, we need to design formative assessments that give us accurate and actionable information about the skill. Providing a scale or rubric does little more than tell students what we want; it does not teach the skill. And until we know where each of our students is in relation to our target, we cannot design effective instruction. It’s not accurate to assess their task management based on the outcome of a class assignment alone; we will need to develop assessments that specifically measure this skill separately from other skills we are teaching.

Finally, if we really want to ensure learning, we need to design instruction based on the results of our assessments. This means offering feedback, differentiating practice, and slowly and intentionally helping all our students build the skills and habits that will lead them to be more effective managers of their time.

Illustration of a desk and laptop that is videoconferencing.
Jobalou/DigitalVision Vectors

Blaming our students for struggling with executive functioning is like blaming them for struggling to read. As educators, we need to be better than that.

In a world that will likely always involve some level of remote learning or work, it’s more important than ever that we understand and accept that our role as educators is to teach time management and other executive-functioning skills, not just expect that our students have them and get frustrated when they don’t. We’re in control of our response to our students’ habits, so let’s respond with compassion and professionalism and do what we signed up for, pandemic or not: teach.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Remote Learning Makes Time Management Even Harder


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